USA, Paramus, New Jersey – Books NJ 2011, the second annual “celebration of books and the readers who love them,” was held recently at the Paramus Public Library. Sponsored by the Bergen County Cooperative Library System or “BCCLS,” a consortium of 75 public northern New Jersey libraries, Berkeley College, New Jersey State Library, and the Paramus Public Library, this tented, rain-or-shine, event was enjoyed by hundreds, and featured author talks, signings, some 35 panels, events for children, and the presentation of the BCCLS Lifetime Achievement Award to novelist Mary Higgins Clark.
Mary Higgins Clark was on hand with author daughter Carol Higgins Clark, speaking about the art and craft of writing and signing books. Other writers who were available in a Meet-the-Author spotlight were Chris Grabenstein (2006 Anthony Award winner for his mystery Tilt-A-Whirl), Brad Parks (Nero and Shamus Awards winner for his thriller Faces of the Gone), cookbook author Alison Fishman (You Can Trust a Skinny Cook), and New York Times Bestselling author and prolific New Jersey mystery writer Mary Jane Clark .
The Higgins Clark mother-daughter team spoke about how their story ideas often come from the news, about their love of setting stories in various New Jersey locations (such as Ocean Grove, Spring Lake and Belmar), about how they approach writing together, and some of the other “usual and customary” writing questions. When asked about naming characters, Mary offered a great anecdote. At one time, she had chosen to combine the first name of someone she knew and the last name of someone else she knew to make up a character’s name- a technique which seemed perfectly innocent.
“The character’s name was completely made up,” Mary said, “but I later discovered it was the same as someone I’d met at church. I was worried, but the woman didn’t seem to mind. When I ran into her she told me, ‘I’m thrilled that you used my name, but why did you have to strangle me on the boardwalk???’” While their contact with fans is normally quite light and pleasant, it has sometimes been, shall we say, more than humorous.
“Because we don’t have sex or violence in our books,” Carol shared, “we are read in the schools. I was actually (emailed) a list of questions by a young boy who wrote and told me that he hadn’t had time to finish reading my book (for his project). He asked if I would send him answers to those questions. When I told him I would be happy to be interviewed, he wrote back, ‘Could you just answer the questions???’”
Mary Jane Clark, author of 11 mysteries set in New Jersey (including one in Ocean Grove) regaled her audience with her own wonderful tales about writing.
The prolific author of the KEY News Thrillers series and her newest Wedding Cake Mystery series. Clark, a former newswoman in the trenches, is a champion for the cause of finding a cure and treatment for Fragile X Syndrome. She has a son with this condition, caused by a gene defect, which causes mental impairment, attention deficit, hyperactivity, and autistic-like behavior. It’s estimated that 1 in 259 women carry Fragile X and could pass it to their children. Clark hopes to raise public awareness of Fragile X through her books. In Do You Want to Know a Secret, a character with Fragile X holds the key to the mystery, in Close To You, the characters attend a fundraising ball for Fragile X. Subsequent books have been dedicated to those affected by Fragile X Syndrome. Brava!
Panel discussion tracks included the subject areas of “The Art of the Novel,” “Writing for Young Readers,” “The Motions of Research,” “My Favorite Genre,” “Print to Digital to Audio,” Poetry,” and “NJ: What’s Your Exit?”
A particularly notable panel discussion was “The Memoir- Me: Sharing Your Innermost Experiences for all the World to Read” with Ed Breslin (Drinking with Miss Dutchie, Thomas Dunne Books), Jack McLean (Loon: A Marine Story,, Random House), Mindy Greenstein (The House at Crash Corner) , Jayanti Tamm (Cartwheels in a Sari, Three Rivers Press), and John Zeaman (Dog Walks Man, The Lyons Press). McLean’s book, Loon, tells the story of his service in Vietnam with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. He was the firstVietnam veteran to attend Harvard following service. A first-time author with a big hit book, he had much to say about the experience of writing a memoir.
“You’re never too old,” McLean said. “This is my first book and (throughout the process) I was thinking ‘this is a fool’s errand.’” It was the confirmation from other people who had undergone the struggles of military service and post traumatic stress disorder that kept him going. Encouragement came in an interesting way. “This is not about you but all about something no one else would ever know,” someone told him. “You’re the only one who can write this story.” McLean says that’s what drove him forward: having a story to tell that was much bigger than “just” his own story- a story that he wasn’t, initially, interested in telling.
“The truth I was reporting on was much bigger than me,” McLean adds, noting that it was then that he dug into writing- and into what he, himself, had experienced through war. “I went down a rabbit hole,” he said, referring to his writing for some five years before knowing it was “time to stop.” It was then that he connected with what he referred to as “some top editors.” Two years later, Random House bought the book, and his story began raising awareness for soldiers returning from war who were suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The book has even been used as a way to set up talking points about the subject.
Tamm’s book, Cartwheels in a Sari, is about how a cult was established, grew and changed over time. “My entire family was created by a cult,” she said, “my parents were married by the cult leader, and I lived 25 years in the cult. My goal (in writing the book) was to be totally truthful. Otherwise what’s the point?” She recounts some crazy events in the book, including one in which the cult leader wanted to demonstrate his strength to the world by claiming he could lift an elephant by himself.
“The event was just so absurd and disciples were setting up pulleys and levers to lift the elephant, Tamm said. “The reader has knowledge and experience to make a decision for him/herself in this story- they’ll see all the insanity.”
Another excellent panel was “The Impact of the Internet on Writing and Publishing: Blogging and Book Trailers” with moderator Janice Harayda, Editor-in-Chief of One-Minute-Book-Review (voted one of New Jersey’s best blogs, by the way). Mystery writerTodd Ritter (Death Notice and Bad Moon), Alissa Grosso, novelist Ellen Meister (The Other Life, The Smart One, and Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA), Charlotte Bennardo, and Natalie Zaman shared about their experiences with technology- from creating a Facebook page for a dead author (Meister) to creating their own book trailer (from scratch!) to designing and producing their own web site (Ritter).
“Choose four or so (communications technologies) that are the easiest for you to start, Meister recommended, “Maybe FaceBook, Twitter, Good Reads, and Tumbler or something that is relevant to your book.” Meister has started an unusual form of promotion. Since she’s working on a book about Dorothy Parker (in which Parker’s ghost is featured as a mentor to the main character), she’s begun pre-promotion- with a FaceBook page for the deceased scribe.
Harayda had good things to say about Twitter, and suggested one have a friend send prompts to start community conversation. “I was scared to try it,” Ritter said, referring to Twitter, “but I enjoy it now, and it can expose you to other things such as getting an interview, being asked to write something, etc. It’s just a bit like walking into the school cafeteria on the first day of school; you don’t who to sit with.”
And, there is more to keeping up with technology than “just” the usual “suspects” of Facebook, Twitter, etc. Ritter pointed out that there are scan codes now on just about everything. These are for use with an iPhone application that prompts the smartphone to go directly to a designated web site…Ingenious! So much available for use in promoting books and other works in the best way possible, but it’s important to start promotion early.
“Most authors wait until a month or so before their book is released to begin promoting,” Harayda said, pointing out a mistake made all too often. “You need to start promoting as soon as you get the idea for the book.”
All in all, Books NJ 2011 was an amazing day of information sharing and networking for authors and readers- and it was seamless event.
“All the effort comes from the BCCLS Public Relations Committee and Arlene Sahraie, our Library Services Director,” Robert W. White, Executive Director, Bergen County Cooperative Library System said. “We think it makes a real showcase for the role of books in our lives, and their importance to libraries.”
Books NJ will take a respite next year, but look for this very special event again in 2013. For more information please visit http://www.booksnj.org/.
Text ©2011 M. D. Caprario
Photos ©2011 Jane Lindman
Many thanks to librarian Becky Karpoff who recommended to us the new “trendy” eatery, Bucu. Dare we say, “Merci beaucoup for Bucu”?
M.D. Caprario is an entertainment journalist, and a writer and editor who works with authors around the world to help tell their stories. She reports from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and internationally (and even occasionally from New Jersey), covering for the media books, film, and music. Reach her at [email protected].